Sonia pincer assault to cripple govt
Congress talks coalition, thinks otherwise
Another twist in temple script
Jaswant holds defence fort
BJP blasts Sonia in �traitor� hitback
Bloody land clash rocks Rabri backyard
Bajrang for trishul sena
Varsity staff cease work
SC orders damages to labourers
CPM activist killed in camp attac

New Delhi & Calcutta, March 18: 
Signalling a fresh offensive within and without Parliament, Congress president Sonia Gandhi today pledged to pursue a single-point agenda to �liberate the country from the shackles of the corrupt, shameful and communal Vajpayee regime�.

In her hour-long presidential address on the concluding day of the 81st plenary in Bangalore, Sonia said: �Let the message go forth from Bangalore that we will fight every battle, wage every war, make every sacrifice to drive a venal BJP out of power.�

The Congress will continue to block Lok Sabha proceedings till March 23 when the House goes into a month-long recess. The strategy is to keep the heat on the BJP and force the Sangh parivar to respond to public opinion.

The message from Bangalore is to ensure the Vajpayee government�s downfall. If it survives, the Congress will try to reduce it to a lameduck regime and launch a nation-wide agitation.

A Congress action plan will be released tomorrow, unleashing a wave of protests across the country against the BJP-led government. Sonia will address a series of meetings in state capitals.

The Bangalore Declaration to be unveiled in Delhi tomorrow will entrust each district and block-level Congress committee with the task of organising dharnas against the Vajpayee regime till it tenders resignation on �moral grounds�. Sonia said the party committee�s performance in organising demonstrations will be judged.

The rest of the Opposition parties are also sharpening their knives. �We are meeting in the morning to discuss strategy. Our demand is that the Vajpayee government must go. So far, I do not see a possibility of the House functioning,� said senior CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee. He added that the Left parties will decide on a course of action in Parliament after meeting other non-Congress Opposition parties.

Picking up from where she left yesterday, Sonia demanded Vajpayee�s exit and said: �For a fistful of riches, the men and women who rule in the name of high principles have sold the honour of the seats they occupy. There can be no forgiveness. There can be no mercy.�

For the first time since 1996, when Narasimha Rao demited office as Prime Minister, the Congress chief showered lavish praise on his government, acknowledging Rao�s role in rescuing the nation from its �gravest economic and political crisis�. Rao sat on the dais and watched in silence as thunderous applause broke from various quarters.

The Congress chief said her party disagreed with the BJP�s views on public sector, food subsidies and bank denationalisation. �It is the Congress that combines a liberal economic policy with a proactive social policy,� she said.

With corruption emerging as a key plank, Sonia said the Congress should �take the lead to put in place a more transparent, honest system of financing political activities�.

Sonia said a brainstorming Panchmarhi session will be convened within six months to fine-tune policy and programmes.

Despite the call for Vajpayee�s resignation, it is not clear whether the Opposition can make good its claims of putting up an alternative. At the moment, there seem to be too many imponderables within the parties, too many cross-currents pulling in diverse directions.

�When the government goes, everything will fall in place,� said the ever-optimistic CPM general-secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet. But the events of 1999 that had catapulted the Vajpayee government back to the throne in Delhi had shown that alternative arrangements do not fall in place that easily. Surjeet�s trusted political aide, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav�s refusal to support a Sonia-led government had poured cold water over the Left�s hopes.

Nothing has changed since then. Uttar Pradesh is going to the polls this year, and Mulayam will have to jostle with the Congress for the largest slice of the Muslim vote. Bitter adversaries in the state, neither Mulayam nor the Congress relish the possibility of backing each other at the Centre.


Bangalore, March 18: 
Contrary to the public posture of being prepared to enter into a coalition with �like-minded secular parties�, the Congress is completely opposed to the idea of sharing power with the Left and other non-NDA parties in the 13th Lok Sabha.

The Congress facade of having reconciled to the concept of coalitions is aimed at hastening the collapse of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and maintaining floor coordination among Opposition parties.

According to Congress assessment, the Vajpayee government will collapse sooner rather than later and, given the composition of the Lok Sabha, there will be no option but mid-term polls. The pronouncement of playing a pro-active role in forming a secular, alternative government is restricted to ensuring the downfall of the Vajpayee regime.

At another level, the coalition talk is a lullaby for party MPs opposed to mid-term polls some time later this year. �We could not have said that the nation is heading for polls and shut the coalition door for the future,� a senior party leader said.

He said a tie-up with the Left was not possible in view of the Kerala and Bengal Assembly polls. Apart from the Left, there is hardly an Opposition party � the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party � willing to join hands with the Congress. The Congress Working Committee has also decided that it will not repeat the �United Front experiment� that saw it playing second fiddle.

In her presidential address, Sonia Gandhi underlined the Congress credential of running governments and made no reference to forging alliances. She went to the extent of saying that the Congress was the only broad-based political party that is not sectarian or parochial. �It is also a party that, when out of power, does not play politics with crucial economic issues.�

Like the political resolution yesterday, she made a dig at the Left, alleging �misrule� in Bengal and Kerala. In Bengal, the Congress is waiting for a response from Mamata Banerjee on distancing herself from the BJP at the state level.

Party leaders said Kamal Nath and Pranab Mukherjee would now meet Mamata to persuade her to leave the BJP �permanently�. Their talks are likely to be followed by a Sonia-Mamata meeting, but progress will depend on Trinamul�s attitude towards the local BJP.

�There cannot be a direct or indirect tie-up with the BJP,� a leader handling Bengal said.

There is glee in the Congress at being able to target Vajpayee, whose image has held the NDA together thus far. As a Congress floor manager said: �The victor of Kargil and author of Pokhran is now faced with allegations of shielding those involved in murky defence deals. In a single stroke, the BJP�s focus on national security, narrow nationalism has collapsed. All we have to do is to sustain the campaign,� he said.

Sonia was a picture of confidence through the weekend at Bangalore. Suddenly, her voice seemed to have gained new strength and the body language exhibited assertiveness.

She stamped her feet and struck her finger against the podium while attacking Vajpayee and his government. For the majority of party delegates, it was the emergence of a new Sonia.


Rajiv Gandhi Nagar (Bangalore) March 18: 
The Congress flip-flop on Ayodhya continued with the party thinktank making changes in the Congress stand after vehement protests by A.K. Antony, Madhavrao Scindia and other senior leaders.

The revised political resolution makes it clear that a Ram temple cannot be built where the Babri masjid stood. However, it made no reference to a court verdict settling the dispute.

The resolution moved yesterday was differently worded and had said that the Congress was not against building the temple, but against the Babri demolition.

This had led to the interpretation that the main Opposition party was now favouring the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site.

Congressmen are intrigued about why the party is shying away from reiterating its known stand of accepting a judicial verdict.

The controversy hotted up after chief ministers of the Congress-ruled states, Scindia, Antony and Vayalar Ravi opposed the wording and Sonia Gandhi was forced to summon her thinktank and revise the document.

It is believed that Makhan Lal Fotedar, who had advised Sonia to take a dip in the Sangam during the Maha Kumbh, had got this line of thinking inserted with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh polls.

However, Congress leaders from Kerala and ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) forced Sonia to change track.

The Congress is plugging a new line on Ayodhya, favouring an out-of-court settlement through a �peaceful, civilised and transparent method�. The Panchmarhi declaration and subsequent policy papers had clearly stated that the party would abide by the court verdict on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri masjid dispute.

Not everyone, though, is happy with the flip-flop. �We have succeeded in doing the impossible of annoying both the Hindus and the Muslims. The new line means we are against the Ram temple at Ayodhya irrespective of the court verdict. When the Muslim Personal Law Board can accept the court verdict, why are we reluctant? Just because Vinay Katiar says the VHP-Bajrang Dal will not abide by the court?� a CWC member asked, wondering why the party chose to reopen the issue.

But sources close to Sonia tried to play down the issue, saying a ruling would be binding on them.


New Delhi, March 18: 
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government today decided to hand foreign minister Jaswant Singh additional charge of the defence ministry, ending speculation over who would replace George Fernandes.

Sources in the Prime Minister�s Office said since the Parliament session stretched for a few more days, it was necessary that the defence ministry be allotted to someone without delay.

With the Prime Minister dealing with a gamut of problems, it was inadvisable that he burden himself with the portfolio. Under the circumstances, the choice was obvious. As foreign minister, Singh has been a key player in security issues. He will not take time to understand the working of the ministry.

But the government dropped broad hints that this was a temporary arrangement. The foreign ministry demanded a lot of attention and it was not possible for the same person to look after both the crucial ministries simultaneously. It leaves room for Fernandes to stage a comeback if and when he is cleared of the charges following the Tehelka expos�.

The PMO also made it clear that there was no need to appoint a railway minister immediately. �There are two ministers of state in the railway ministry � Samata Party�s Digvijay Singh and the BJP�s O. Rajagopal. Either of them would be in a position to field questions pertaining to railway issues in Parliament during the remaining period of the first phase of the budget session.

�Whereas, the defence ministry was without either a minister or a minister of state. Harin Pathak of Gujarat had quit late last year after he was found to be involved in a criminal case in his home state,� said a source.

This additional responsibility entrusted with Singh goes to show that the Prime Minister continues to repose strong faith in his foreign minister despite the resentment of a section of hardliners within the party.

The RSS had never much liked Singh, and the list of achievers in the Cabinet prepared by the Sangh after this Vajpayee government completed one year had carefully omitted Singh.

Today�s decision implies that Singh, who had been maintaining a low profile following criticism within the party that he spends too much time abroad, is back in business and has again emerged as Vajpayee�s key troubleshooter. Singh has been shying away from media attention in recent months, and except for regularly attending meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security, he was not playing a major role in domestic affairs.

Singh, government sources pointed out, is a former army officer and an expert on security issues. He had offered significant suggestions on security issues, especially when the National Security Council or the CCS met during the Kargil war.

Of course, he never interfered with the functioning of the defence ministry, but his words of advice were always taken seriously.

A Rashtrapati Bhavan communiqu� said: �The President of India, as advised by the Prime Minister, has directed that Jaswant Singh, minister of external affairs, may hold the charge of minister of defence in addition to his current charge.�


New Delhi, March 18: 
The war of words today escalated with the BJP hurling counter-accusations at Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who yesterday accused Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of condoning �traitors�.

�Sonia Gandhi has crossed all limits of political decency and culture. Does she understand the meaning of gaddari? It pains us to see the low depths to which the Congress leadership has descended,� BJP acting president Jana Krishnamurthi said.

Sonia is blinded by her hatred for the Prime Minister and her �unbridled� ambition to grab power has led her to demand the exit of the National Democratic Alliance government, he added.

At the plenary of the Congress in Bangalore, the main Opposition party has hit out at the Centre for the sordid revelations and demanded the government�s resignation.

Earlier, during her election campaigns Sonia had targeted Vajpayee and labelled him a �traitor�. Even then the BJP had reacted with aggression and targeted her for her foreign origin.

The Tehelka revelations have added explosive ammunition to the Congress armoury and the party has pulled no punches in blasting the BJP government.

Stung by the hard-hitting attack, the BJP turned its guns on the Congress and blasted it for the scams it had spawned at the Centre. �As far as Bofors was concerned, the then Congress government was not prepared for an inquiry � our government, on the contrary, is ready for a probe and a debate in Parliament,� said Krishnamurthi.


Patna, March 18: 
Twelve people are feared killed this afternoon in a clash over reclaiming land on the Ganga riverbed in Raghopur, chief minister Rabri Devi�s constituency.

Coming in the wake of the Siwan flare-up, the incident sparked angry protests. More than 2,000 people, carrying some of the bodies, stormed the Khusrupur police station in Vaishali district and demonstrated till late in the evening. Unable to control the belligerent crowd, the police resorted to lathicharge twice. But the crowd refused to relent and demanded that the remaining bodies be recovered at the earliest.

Tension ran high in Raghopur, forcing the government to deploy additional forces to maintain law and order. Senior police officers have rushed to the area.

Inspector-general of police (operation) Nilmoni said four bodies were found with bullet injuries. Four more corpses were recovered from the riverbed. They are believed to have drowned as they were attacked by rivals or as the police chased them.

But the police are baffled as villagers complained that four others were missing. Divers and fishermen are searching for the bodies even as the police began a probe to establish how the toll increased.

Police said trouble started around 2 pm when a backward caste-group from Vaishali town tried to claim a strip of land, which had emerged as the Ganga changed course. An armed gang, comprising mainly Yadavs, from Raghopur, confronted them, resulting in the clash and firing.


Hyderabad, March 18: 
The Bajrang Dal has decided to raise an army of three lakh volunteers who will be given special training in the martial arts.

Bajrang Dal national convener Surendra Jain said the outfit will be christened the trishul brigade � members will given trishuls as weapons � and volunteers trained in stick-fighting and yoga apart from the martial arts.

Members will also be given lessons on how thousands of Hindus were converted by Muslim invaders in the past, Jain said.�This is essential for Hindus to protect themselves against onslaughts mounted in the name of jihad,� he pointed out.

The Bajrang convener said the jihad cry had been raised by the Islamic mafia, which was controlled by petro-dollars from West Asia. �The petro-dollars will be exhausted in the next 20-30 years. But Muslims should be aware of the misinformation campaign,� he said.

Jain said it was widely alleged that the minority population in the country was fast decreasing, but the reality was 10,000 mosques and 20,000 madarsas had come up in the past 10 years. �These are becoming training centres of militancy, hideouts for ISI agents and terrorists as well as dumps for arms and ammunition,� he cautioned.

Jain also commented on the tehelka expose, saying he had information that the dotcom had allegedly taken Rs 2 crore from a Congress leader in Haryana to uncover the defence �scam�.

Contending there were incongruities in the Tehelka expose, Jain said the dotcom had initially claimed to have over 100 hours of videotape, but had finally conceded to having four hours of film only. Besides, its reporter Mathew Samuel had taken off for a �safe house� to avoid questioning.

He also questioned how the Congress knew about the Tehelka revelations even before they were put on the website.


Shantiniketan, March 18: 
Even as students of Visva Bharati University decided to rejoin classes on Sunday, academic activities came to a halt with employees of Kala Bhavan staying away from their work and demanding action against those who had heckled the varsity doctor in connection with a molestation case.

Tension had been prevailing at campus since Thursday night after the students of Kala Bhavan raided the residence of S.C. Kundu, the varsity doctor.

A first year student of Kala Bhavan had alleged on Thursday night that Kundu had molested her when she had gone to his chamber for treatment. On learning of this, a large number of students had rushed to the doctor�s house to protest against the alleged molestation.

Police had to resort to lathicharge to disperse the students. The students later decided to boycott classes to protest against the lathicharge.

After two days, the students returned to their classes only to find all classrooms and other offices closed.

Most of the non-teaching staff stayed away from work on Sunday, a working day for Visva Bharati, which has its weekly off-day on Wednesday. Employees refused to open the classrooms and museums.

The Visva Bharati Employees� Union today submitted a memorandum to the vice-chancellor demanding that the students involved in heckling the doctor be punished within 72 hours.

The employees threatened to intensify their movement on Tuesday if their demand is not met.

�We will not tolerate this sort of attacks on innocent employees. The students should not be allowed to indulge in maligning the staff members in this way. The authorities should deal with this very firmly,� said Visva Bharati Karmisabha secretary Partha Pratim Roy.

The employees� union has also lodged an first information report with the local police station against seven students of the university. �The investigations are on,� said Bolpur sub-divisional police officer Sujit Kumar Sarkar.

Roy alleged that the students had even threatened to kill the doctor and his child.

The students, on their part, are aghast at the reaction of the non-teaching staff. �We are shocked at the manner in which we are being harassed by the employees,� said Priti Nartia, president, Kala Bhavan students� union.


Midnapore, March 18: 
A division bench of the Supreme Court has directed the owners of a factory to pay more than Rs 18 lakh as compensation to 33 stone-crushers, 21 of whom have died of silicosis, while the rest are in a critical condition.

District magistrate M.V. Rao said the next of kin of the deceased have been invited to collect the compensation on April 3.

The factory, Surendra Khanij Limited, has been sealed by the state government. Its owners have been asked to pay the compensation by March 31, failing which the factory�s properties will be attached, to help pay the damages.

The workers, most of whom are tribals of Chenchurgaria under Jhargram police station fell prey to silicosis, caused by the spread of silicones during the crushing of the quartzite stones.

Rao said the credit for ensuring compensation to the labourer�s families goes to Kwark Science Centre, an non-government organisation that started a movement in 1993 after the death of the workers and filed a case against the government.


Midnapore, March 18: 
One CPM activist was killed and six others received serious burn injuries when alleged Trinamul Congress supporters hurled bombs at a CPM camp at Paschim Chak under Pingla police station early this morning.

Police said about 20 Trinamul supporters on four motorcycles came from the direction of Handol village side and started throwing bombs on the camp.

The polythene covering of the camp caught fire and CPM activists, who were asleep, were injured, according to Sandip Singh Ray, officer-in-charge of Pingla police station.

Sentu Khanra (22) was killed on the spot and six others were transferred to Midnapore district hospital. Three of the injured were later moved to the SSKM Hospital in Calcutta as their condition deteriorated.

However, Dinen Ray, district secretary of Trinamul alleged that the accident occurred when a gang of miscreants owing allegiance to the CPM were manufacturing bombs in the village.

Kharagpur additional superintendent of police Vineet Goel said the Kharagpur sub-divisional police officer and circle inspector had been sent to make an on the spot study of the situation. However, nobody has yet been arrested.


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